Who knew the story of “Superman” was so fraught with pain, exploitation and unhappiness?
The Man of Steel brought joy and release to millions of kids worldwide, but he became a white-hot poker in the consciousness of his creators, writer Jerry Siegel and cartoonist Joe Shuster.
In “The History of Invulnerability,” playwright David Bar Katz delves deeply into Siegel’s psyche and finds a resonance between the man’s Jewish identity, his hope for a deliverer and the ultimate betrayal that he felt from Superman — aka Kal-El. The play opened Saturday at Minnesota Jewish Theatre Company in St. Paul.
Katz has written an untidy and overstuffed script — long, repetitive, overly ambitious and, oddly enough, incomplete in some of its side trips through Siegel’s mind. Yet, give Katz some credit for creating an artistic mythology from facts that might have settled for a maudlin, sad biography. Katz has created, in a way, the passion of Jerry Siegel. Portrayed with fragile and poignant humanity by Jim Lichtscheidl, Siegel is on his deathbed and experiences one final fantasia in which Superman evolves into an invincible god while Siegel crumbles.
Lichtscheidl shares the stage for most of the play with DanBeckmann, tall and strong in the blue and red garb of Superman. Alex Brightwell portrays Shuster, a chubby schmo flustered by deadlines, but talented enough as a cartoonist.
In the 1930s, Siegel and Shuster submitted Superman to corrupt businessmen trying to go legit by selling pulp. The early books were a hit, and Siegel and Shuster did something stupid but understandable for teenagers in the Great Depression. They sold the rights to their hero for $130. Selling this birthright would haunt Siegel for the rest of his life.
Bar Katz pairs this injustice with scenes from the Holocaust, showing death camp inmates fascinated by the possibility that Superman might deliver them. Dustin Valenta, in particular, plays a hopeful youngster who expresses heartbreaking faith in making the Man of Steel a religious totem.
Throughout this rambling production, Lichtscheidl’s Siegel explains how Superman was conceived as a deliverer, someone who could rescue Jewish people from centuries of persecution. Ultimately, though, the character was twisted into something Siegel could not recognize. His publishers prevented him and Shuster from certain political statements, manipulated characters and stole ideas.
Lichtscheidl’s soft, gentle and pleading performance anchors director Hayley Finn’s production at MJTC. Sam Smith has drawn cartoon panels projected on screens to illustrate many moments along the way and the sound and light team of C. Andrew Mayer and Michael Wangen find evocative accents in their work.
‘The History of Invulnerability” is a long sit with a good deal of chaff. Katz revisits motifs too frequently and he bites off an awful lot. A subplot about Siegel effectively abandoning his real-life son to pursue his fictional son (Kal-El) could be another play in itself.
Still, within the clutter is a challenging exploration of the psychic dimensions of demigods and the mere humans who create them.